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Calls to Address Racial Inequities a “Defining Moment for the Iowa Football Program”

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Iowa football faces a crossroads as former players call for the team culture to become more welcoming for black athletes.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Rutgers at Iowa Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The foundation of the Iowa football program has always been its incredible work ethic. For decades the Iowa football team has prided itself on outworking its competitors both on and off the field, playing with full intensity for the duration of every contest and working harder than any team in the country to develop and cultivate talented athletes who are also leaders of men.

Over the past few days, Hawkeye fans have learned just how hard many of the program’s black former players had to work to navigate a culture that often felt alien and unwelcoming to them, and how much hard work lies ahead of the program if it hopes to address this problem.

In the wake of the nationwide protests surrounding police brutality against the black community, head coach Kirk Ferentz issued a statement to his team calling for listening and understanding. Ferentz wrote that, as a white football coach, he could not fully understand the experiences of many of the young black men in his program, but, that “in this time of such anguish and emotion, we are going to be better listeners. Not just hearing from others but listening and trying our best to understand where another opinion is coming from.”

Some former players took Ferentz’s words to heart. After the head coach stated that Iowa’s decision whether to kneel in protest of the marginalization of Americans of color would be determined by the collective will of the team, several former players began to weigh in on the experience of being a black student athlete at the University of Iowa. Some players spoke of traumatic encounters with the Iowa City police, while others commented on the discomfort felt by many black players in the locker room, with many focusing on Chris Doyle and the strength & conditioning program as a particular area of concern (Doyle has since been placed on administrative leave pending an independent review).

While these negative experiences do not appear to be universal (several former black players have indicated that, while they support their former teammates who are speaking out, that they did not personally witness or experience similar issues during their time with the program), the stories being shared by former players are plentiful and consistent enough to raise serious concerns about the state of the program. To think that black players have been made to feel less welcome than their white teammates is appalling.

A toxic football culture that breeds fear and distrust among black players has several devastating implications for the football program. Black players who might otherwise thrive at the university could instead be repelled during the recruiting process or choose to transfer if they find elements of the team’s culture to be unwelcoming. Recent transfer DJ Johnson indicated that these cultural issues were a major factor behind his decision to depart from the team.

The feeling of not fully belonging on a team and the perceived inability to be one’s authentic self in front of coaches and teammates could prevent the team from truly coming together and achieving its potential as a bonded, cohesive unit. Former running back Albert Young implied that these cultural issues have discouraged several distinguished black alumni from continuing a relationship with the program after graduation.

However, the damage inflicted by a toxic culture on black student athletes extends far beyond the field of play. Research from USC’s Dr. Shaun Harper found that the University of Iowa had one of the lowest graduation rates of black male student athletes among power five schools, and that the disparity between the percentage of Iowa’s black male athletes who graduate (40%) compared to all student athletes at the university (77%) is the highest in the Big Ten. Is it any wonder that many black student athletes fail to thrive in an environment where they don’t feel fully accepted?

The troubling statements from former Hawkeyes raise more questions than answers. Was the coaching staff aware that these cultural concerns existed? Did avenues exist for current and/or former players to voice these concerns in a way that they believed would be genuinely heard? If these issues were brought to light, what if anything did the football program and the athletic department do to address them? How far back does this problem reach?

It’s noteworthy that the overwhelming majority of players who have come forward with concerns came through the program in the past decade, and Fred Russell’s statement indicates that former running backs coach Carl Jackson and former sports counselor Marvin Sims, both of whom worked with the program during Ferentz’s first decade at the helm, served as important advocates for black players. Might the program’s culture have shifted negatively in their absence?

The response to this outpouring of stories has been swift. The program’s long-standing ban on players having social media accounts has been relaxed to allow student athletes to participate in the larger conversation about race in America, enabling current Hawkeyes to weigh in on the program culture as well. A handful of individuals even took to vandalizing the statue of Nile Kinnick outside Iowa’s football stadium to express their displeasure with the program.

The vandalism of the Kinnick statue has been widely criticized by the very group of alumni who initiated this conversation. Targeting a memorial to Kinnick in response to inequities among black student athletes at the University of Iowa makes little sense, as Kinnick would likely have been among the first to stand beside his fellow Hawkeyes speaking out against such a serious social ill.

Kinnick, who used his Heisman acceptance speech as a platform for political protest, whose 1940 commencement address urged, “enlightened thought and understanding,” and “real mental courage,” in response to, “injustice, oppression and war,” and who wrote that black Americans suffer from America’s worst social inequity and are, “kicked from pillar to post…accorded no respect, permitted no sense of human dignity,” should be viewed not as a symbol of the program’s shortcomings, but as an aspirational model for what it is capable of becoming. It’s no wonder that Carl Davis and Jaleel Johnson are traveling to Iowa City to help with its cleanup.

This selfless act by Davis and Johnson, as well as several other actions in the past few days, provide a hopeful path forward for a football program seeking to address the same questions of whiteness and social justice that are being tackled by America at large. The leadership shown by former players like James Daniels, Mike Daniels, Jordan Lomax, Faith Ekakitie, and several others in speaking out in support of change embodies the very values the football program seeks to instill. That these calls for improvement have come from successful alums (including one in Mike Daniels who was tapped by the program to narrate an epic hype video a few years back) who are seeking not to burn the program to the ground, but to strengthen something they love, matters. The powerful support offered by white teammates who can’t fully understand what their former brothers in arms experienced but have their back nonetheless matters.

Kirk Ferentz has already taken the first step by acknowledging what his former players have to say, forming an advisory committee comprised of current and former players to focus on this issue, and promising that change will begin with him. The coming weeks may be difficult for everyone who loves Iowa football, and Ferentz and the university will have a difficult decision in determining how to handle allegations against Doyle and the rest of the staff, particularly given Doyle’s outsized popularity among many former players and the prominent role of his legendary strength program in the Iowa football mythos. But if the team is truly open, honest, and reflective during this time, the program may well emerge even stronger and healthier than before. Ferentz called this a “defining moment for the Iowa football program,” and he could not be more right.